Workplace bullying can have severe consequences while it is occurring, but does it have long-term life-changing effects on the victim? And if it does, what does this mean for organisations with bullying and harassment cultures or who have managers and supervisors who resort to workplace bullying in order to get the job done?
For this article, we look at European research that interviewed 20 victims of workplace bullying to determine their long-term psychological and physical health changes. For these employees, bullying included the spreading of rumours and repeated insults aimed at changing the image of the victim and resulting in feelings of guilt, shame and diminishing self-esteem. We conclude the article with primary, secondary and tertiary anti-bullying interventions that organisations can draw on to prevent workplace bullying, support victims and reduce the long-term effects.
Workplace Bullying Victims Can Be Marked For Life
There is a known link between workplace bullying and ill health in the form of psychosomatic symptoms and severe psychological stress symptoms. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and general anxiety disorders have also been identified in bully victims and even non-bullied employees can be negatively affected when they witness workplace bullying.
For these victims of workplace bullying, they perceived the bullying as a psychic trauma, a traumatic life event, or as a life crisis. According to these victims, bullying left an internal scar or vulnerability, which would never heal completely, but would easily reopen and continue to cause harm. When these victims were reminded of the bullying, this reopened the old internal wounds and tensed and painful memories were brought back again. Bullying was most often perceived by these victims as a purely negative event rather than as an event that also provided personal development and strength or other positive gains. Bullying destroyed the victims mental or physical health.
See our article, Does Workplace Bullying Affect Your Staff Mental Health?
Workplace Bullying Victims Feel That They Deserve It
These victims of workplace bullying felt less valued and can begin to feel that they deserved to be bullied and over time accepted the bullying behaviour as normal. Feelings of shame developed, and their behaviour changed that led to a deterioration in health and the bully-victim blaming themselves for the bullying which affected their self-image. All negative events at the workplace were perceived to be attributed to these who became ‘‘scapegoats’’. Frustration and worry at the workplace were commonly channelled through the bully-victims, who thereby perceived that they carried the bully’s burdens. The bully-victims assumed feelings of guilt and blamed themselves, believing that they were disloyal, created irritation and generally made life difficult for their colleagues.
See our article, Why Do People Use Bullying Behaviour at Work?
Psychosomatic Symptoms Develop Very Early
Within months of the commencement of the bullying, these victims developed both psychological and psychosomatic symptoms. They experienced an inability to concentrate and/or sleep, mood swings, panic attacks, anxiety, depression, despair, and fear. They had headaches, gastric reflux, hypersensitivity to loud noises, respiratory and cardiac complaints, hypertension and pain all over their bodies. In the first few months these symptoms disappeared when the bully was not at work, but over time they became continual and chronic. These victims told that they lived in constant fear of both the bullies and the negative rumours that had been spread about them. They remained in long-standing stress conditions. For these victims, perceived meaning in life disappeared and thoughts of suicide offered a final solution when they believed that they were incapable of changing the situation.
Redress Necessary to Return to a Normal Life
Workplace bullying can be seen as a serious psychological trauma leaving internal wounds that may never entirely heal. Despite this, returning to a ‘‘normal’’ life is possible but requires a long and painful process of working through the course of events that these victims had experienced. For these victims, some form of redress seemed to be necessary to return to as normal a life as possible. Examples of redress included receiving economic compensation, getting professional confirmation and/or finding new meaning in life. Redress provides the confirmation that the bully-victim is in the right and has done no wrong, which relieves feelings of guilt and shame.
Workplace Bullying Costs Business, What Can You Do?
Australian research that surveyed 1528 Australian employees found that almost half of Australian workers experienced some form of workplace bullying in their lifetime. Workplace bullying has been shown to have significant negative impacts on the business bottom line. There is evidence of increased absenteeism and presenteeism, higher rates of staff turnover and high legal costs when cases erupt. It is estimated that workplace bullying costs Australian organisations $6 – $36 billion a year. It is estimated that 5-7% of employees have experienced a bullying event in the past six months.
This research recommends organisations focus on leadership, communication, promotion of positive workplace cultures, empowerment of employees, and timely action. Actions that you can take include: moving the workplace towards a positive and psychologically healthy one, incorporating workplace bullying into the overarching risk management processes. This requires clear policies and procedures. It also places workplace bullying prevention and management firmly into well-being programmes that include training, coaching, and mediation.
See our article, Workplace Bullying: What Do We Know and What Works?
Anti-bullying interventions are generally undertaken as primary, secondary and tertiary programmes.
Primary interventions aim to prevent workplace bullying. The aim is to prevent factors that cause bullying, alter the organisation’s climate or culture, stop behaviours that can be experienced as bullying in an early phase and improve resources that increase the resistance to bullying if it does occur. A suggestion is to link bullying and the organisation’s conflict management climate together. By examining conﬂict dynamics and conﬂict management in organisations, it may be possible to gain a better understanding of the causes, dynamics and outcomes of workplace bullying. Examples are training on workplace bullying, conﬂict prevention and conflict management.
The Tap into Safety Training Platform covers the key points about workplace bullying using MicroLearning and couples this with teaching effective coping strategies for employees who feel that they may be being bullied. The course explains rights and responsibilities and appropriate actions that they may take. Within the Tap into Safety Training Platform, employees are encouraged to seek help. Organisations can also access data to identify staff groups with mental health issues early on. Want to know more? Try a free demo and contact us with any questions.
Secondary and Tertiary Interventions
Secondary interventions aim to reduce the impact of bullying. The aim is to detect bullying as soon as possible to halt or slow its progress. Strategies are in place to prevent a recurrence, to help employees who have been bullied to retain regular health and functioning and to address and adjust the behaviours of the bullies.
Tertiary interventions aim to reduce the impact of the lasting eﬀects of bullying. The aim is to help people manage long-term, often complex health problems and psychological injuries. To improve their ability to function, their quality of life and their life expectancy. Workplace bullying can result in changing the victims’ basic assumptions about themselves and their view of the world.
…everything that earlier was me, that is no longer me.
This article is also available on the Tap into Safety Podcast.